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Preparing Students for the Future

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Educators today are preparing students for a future job market that, spurred on by technological innovation, will bear little resemblance to the one we see today. A recent report from Microsoft and McKinsey & Company’s Education Practice foresees a rapid shift in the way people socialize and work, predicting that by 2030 up to 50 percent of the existing jobs in the United States will be automated and that occupations requiring less formal education will decline by nearly 11.5 million jobs (2020, pp. 3–4). The report also notes that professions that will see the fastest growth will be those that “require higher-level cognitive skills in areas such as problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity, and 30 to 40 percent of jobs will require explicit social-emotional skills” (2020, p. 4).

With this in mind, it’s clear that for students’ future success in the workplace, schools will need to emphasize social, emotional, and academic capabilities. The Aspen Institute phrased it this way in their 2018 report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope: “[S]ocial, emotional, and academic capacities are increasingly demanded in the American workplace, which puts a premium on the ability to work in diverse teams, to grapple with difficult problems, and to adjust to rapid change” (National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, 2018, p. 6). Microsoft’s report, though, highlighted one of the challenges— that our current education system will have less than 50 percent of students prepared for those occupations that are expanding the quickest (2020, p. 4), noting that “[n]early 40 percent of teachers [reported] they do not teach social-emotional skills . . . due to a lack of time and support as well as rigidly standardized curricula, among other challenges” (2020,

p. 5). To further complicate the issue, according to Business Insider by 2050 many traditional management positions will no longer exist, and artificial intelligence will change workplace roles and relationships (Stanger,   2016).   The students we are educating now must be poised to adapt to the many unknowns of our changing occupational landscape.

To ensure that students are adequately prepared for this future, we need to begin by addressing the issues now. This starts with prioritizing our commitment to social and emotional learning, and reimagining what exactly we are preparing our students to be able to do. The role technology will play in their future will need to be reassessed, and what tasks will change in light of technological advances will need to be understood.

Given current anecdotal evidence, such as the help wanted signs and job listings posted for all levels of employment, some of these observations and predictions may sound a bit off base. However, to get the full picture, it’s important to consider how quickly innovations can fill the void that people can’t fill. A recent study by Honeywell Intelligrated found that more than half of U.S. companies consider automation a possible solution to survive the market changes brought about by COVID-19 (Allinson, 2020). For example, warehouses may use automated solutions to pull and prepare orders to help maintain social distancing among workers. This kind of automation is happening in a sector of technology known as “Big Butler,” which encompasses technology that

obeys a user’s orders, such as robots that sort recycling or mop floors, self-driving vehicles, and security systems that use facial recognition (Blanchard, 2018).

Educators will need to focus their learning to prepare students for what the next workforce trend may be. While no one can predict the future (a fact we all learned experientially over the last 18 months), there are some fundamentals of the workforce that will remain essential for students to learn both now and in the future: “In order to be successful in and out of school, students need to learn a set of social and emotional competencies— cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control—and a   set of academic competencies—academic mindset, perseverance, learning strategies, and academic behaviors” (Center for Responsive Schools, n.d.). Regardless of the changes and advances we make, we will always require connectedness, and we will always seek to fulfill our basic needs of belonging and significance—another fact that was emphatically reinforced during the pandemic.

To better prepare students for the challenges of a changing workplace, schools will need to place an emphasis on social, emotional, and academic competencies.

These skills can no longer be seen as an add-on. This is something the founders of the Responsive Classroom approach understood when they drafted their guiding principles, including “[h]ow we teach is as important as what we teach” and “[t]eaching social and emotional skills is as important as teaching academic content” (Center for Responsive Schools, n.d.).

There are three steps schools can take to shift their focus to creating classrooms that leverage and enhance social, emotional, and academic competencies: prioritize, legitimize, and crystallize.


If learning social, emotional, and academic competencies matters, then we need to include it in the schedule. Include time for Morning Meeting or Responsive Advisory Meeting, quiet time, closing circles, modeling routines and procedures, and explicitly teaching skills. Schools that prioritize social and emotional learning are careful to set aside time and build in transitions so students and teachers can engage in the necessary skill building and practice time needed for true learning to take place. Treat this time with the same importance as English language arts, math, science, and social studies. View social and emotional learning as the fifth curriculum and treat it as such.


Teachers are expected to carefully plan lessons for the acquisition of academic content, and they should approach social, emotional, and academic competency learning in the same way. It is important that teachers plan their Morning Meeting or Responsive Advisory Meeting, Interactive Modeling, role-play, and Guided Discovery with the same level of care and detail that is spent on planning academic content. Administrators need to support teachers by ensuring they have the time they need to plan for social and emotional learning.

When I was a school leader, finding the time to plan was difficult, but I made sure to protect planning periods. Teachers participated in grade-level meetings once a week, but otherwise they were free from any other meetings to give them the time to plan. When possible, we worked out lunch and recess duties so that teachers had alternating schedules, allowing for extended planning times. We also helped teachers communicate proactively, set parameters with families, and schedule daily office times around their classes. We held quarterly planning days by using preplanned substitute coverage. This was a time for teachers to review data, discuss student needs, and then carefully prepare long-term planning—paying attention to social, emotional, and academic competencies along with content needs.


For something to take shape and take hold, it must become pervasive in all aspects of the work. Students’ social, emotional, and academic competencies are at the center of all conversations about student success, from what happens in the cafeteria to the classroom to the buses. These competencies hold everything together and can be a common denominator to solve a multitude of problems of practice. Key questions to ask yourself include: Do students know what the competencies are supposed to look like, sound like, and feel like? And are they equipped with the skill set to do it? These questions can prompt you to think about the tools and practices you can use to change the narrative and trajectory.

By ensuring that a social and emotional curriculum is included as part of students’ learning, educators can better prepare students for a workforce that cannot always be predicted. Understanding the core competencies of cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control will offer students the tools to navigate and adapt.

Prior to becoming a chief program officer at Center for Responsive Schools, Karen was a Responsive Classroom curriculum and instructional designer and a consulting teacher, working with educators worldwide to transform their school communities.

Before that, Karen spent ten years as a classroom teacher and seven years as a principal, utilizing Responsive Classroom techniques and practices in the classroom and in the two schools for which she was the founding principal.

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